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October 2021

Cult Med Psychiatry. 1998 Dec; 22(4): 413-43.

The psychologizing of Chinese healing practices in the United States.

Barnes LL.

Brown University, Department of Religious Studies, Providence, RI 02912, USA. [email protected]

This paper explores ways in which Chinese healing practices have undergone acculturation in the United States since the early 1970s. Reacting to what is perceived as biomedicine's focus on the physiological, those who describe themselves as favoring a holistic orientation often use the language of "energy blockage" to explain illness, whether thought of as "physical," "emotional," or "spiritual." Acupuncture in particular has been appropriated as one modality with which to "unblock" such conditions, leading to its being used by some practitioners in conjunction with more psychotherapeutic approaches which include valuing the verbalizing of feelings. Some non-Chinese practitioners in the United States, returning to older Chinese texts to develop "an American acupuncture," are reinserting diagnoses eliminated from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) by the People's Republic of China as "superstition." The assumption has been that many such diagnostic categories refer to psychological or spiritual conditions, and therefore may be useful in those American contexts which favor this orientation. Among these categories are those drawn from traditions of demonology in Chinese medicine. What was once a religious category in China turns psychological in the American setting. At the same time, many who use these terms have, since the late 1960s, increasingly conflated the psychological and the religious, the latter being reframed as "spiritual." Thus, this indigenization of Chinese practices is a complex synthesis which can be described as simultaneously medical, psychotherapeutic, and religious.


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